Religion and Politics ’08: John McCain
National War College, attended courses, 1973-1974
United States Naval Academy, B.S., 1958
Formally declared candidacy April 25, 2007.
U.S. Senator from Arizona, 1987-present
U.S. Representative from Arizona, 1983-1987
Senate Navy Liaison, 1977-1981
United States Navy 1958-1981
Spouse: Cindy Hensley McCain
Children: Sidney McCain, Doug Shepp, Andrew Shepp, Meghan McCain, John Sidney McCain IV, James McCain, Bridget McCain
A Faith Forged as a Prisoner of War
McCain Finds Strength, Purpose in Judeo-Christian Ideals
Last updated Nov. 5, 2008
John McCain was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam when he had an experience of religious affirmation he would recount many years later. One night, after his captors had painfully bound McCain, a guard entered his room and silently loosened the ropes that pinned his head between his legs. Some months later, on Christmas Day, the same guard approached McCain in a courtyard during a short reprieve from solitary confinement. The guard drew a cross in the dirt and looked at McCain without uttering a word. Then, after rubbing away the cross with his sandal, the guard walked away.
“My friends, I will never forget that man; I will never forget that moment,” the U.S. senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential nominee has said during a public appearance featured on his campaign website. “And I will never forget the fact that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult things are, there’s always going to be someone of your faith and your belief and your devotion to your fellow man who will pick you up and help you out and bring you through.”
It is a story that succinctly combines the narrative of McCain’s wartime imprisonment with a commitment to faith that appeals to many American voters. According to an August 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, more than seven-in-ten Americans (72%) agree it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs; this is virtually unchanged from recent years. Republicans especially are likely to say they completely agree with this view (45%); by comparison, slightly more than one-in-four Democrats (27%) and independents (27%) completely agree.
In recent presidential elections, more religiously observant Americans (as measured by frequency of worship service attendance) have tended to vote Republican in larger numbers than their less observant counterparts. In addition, Republican candidates have fared particularly well among white evangelical Protestants, who constitute about one-fourth of the electorate. George W. Bush, for example, received 78% of the white evangelical vote in 2004, up from 68% in 2000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. McCain’s surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a self-described “Bible-believing Christian” with ties to Pentecostal and evangelical churches, as his 2008 vice-presidential running mate was extremely popular among white evangelicals.
During the 2008 presidential horserace, McCain’s Democratic opponent, president-elect Sen. Barack Obama, showed he was far more willing to speak publicly about his faith and the positive impact religion can have on public life than was the 2004 Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. At the same time, McCain appeared less comfortable talking publicly about faith than was George W. Bush, who made religious language a hallmark of his campaigns and presidency.
McCain’s relative reticence to speak publicly about religion (his POW story being a notable exception) and his history of pointed criticism of some evangelical Christian leaders have made his relationship with religious conservatives rocky at times. In the 2008 primary campaign, he tried to mend some fences by seeking and obtaining the endorsement of two influential evangelical preachers — John Hagee of Texas and Rod Parsley of Ohio. But McCain later rejected their support after media outlets reported details of some of their controversial sermons. Hagee, who later apologized, had said Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling God’s will by hastening the desire of Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy; Parsley had called the Muslim Prophet Muhammad “the mouthpiece of a conspiracy of spiritual evil.”
Charting His Own Faith Journey
As in his politics, McCain is something of a maverick in his personal faith, charting his own unique path between two denominations: the Episcopal Church, a mainline Protestant denomination and branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. While McCain was raised an Episcopalian, he and his family have been attending a Southern Baptist megachurch in Arizona for years.
This has prompted the question: Is McCain an Episcopalian or a Southern Baptist? For years, McCain has been described in most sources, including his presidential campaign, as an Episcopalian. But in a September 2007 interview with The Associated Press, McCain asserted, “By the way, I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist.”
A few days later, McCain tried to clarify the situation: “I’d like to add there’s been some talk about my religious persuasion,” McCain told reporters. “I was raised in an Episcopal church and attended high school at … Episcopal High School. I have attended North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and the most important thing is that I’m a Christian. And I don’t have anything else to say on the issue.”
In the course of his 2008 campaign for president, McCain appeared to be well aware of the importance of religion to many American voters. His website included a video clip titled “Faith” in which he elaborated on his beliefs and sense of purpose, alluding to his imprisonment in Vietnam.
“My faith has been my salvation,” McCain said in the video. “I went through a very rough experience in my life, many years ago, and the only reason why I’m here today is because of the faith that I had in a Greater Being who sustained me at times when I was under most difficult stress. My faith has been my anchor and my guide, and I am proud and unashamed to tell people that. I don’t advertise it, and maybe I should, but the fact is the reason, the only reason why I’m here today is because I believe that a Higher Being has a mission for me in my life — a reason for me to be here.”
“Now, that doesn’t mean that He wants me to be elected or not,” McCain added, “but it does mean that I have a purpose, and that purpose, I think, is to live a life based on Judeo-Christian principles and honor and integrity.”
Raised an Episcopalian
The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, McCain grew up in an Episcopal household where personal faith was largely a private matter. “My father didn’t talk about God or the importance of religious devotion,” McCain wrote in his 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers. “He didn’t proselytize.” Yet McCain’s father, John Sidney McCain Jr., prayed aloud on his knees twice a day, using “a tattered, dog-eared prayerbook.”
As a military family, the McCains moved frequently. When he was transferred to Long Beach, Calif., McCain’s father told a Catholic school monsignor that his family would convert to Catholicism if that was necessary for McCain to be accepted as a student. But McCain was accepted without converting and remained an Episcopalian.
When McCain attended Episcopal High School, an elite, all-boys, preparatory boarding school in Alexandria, Va., he was required to attend daily chapel services as well as Sunday church services, where he frequently recited the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed (historical statements of Christian faith and doctrine). McCain graduated in 1954 and became a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where again he was required to attend chapel. He graduated in 1958 and embarked on a 22-year career as a naval aviator.
Faith as a Prisoner of War
As a 31-year-old Navy lieutenant commander in the Vietnam War, McCain was severely injured and subsequently captured and tortured by North Vietnamese forces. McCain often refers to this experience as a time that reinforced his faith in God, his country and his fellow prisoners, renewing his sense of purpose.
In Faith of My Fathers, McCain described feeling God’s love as he discovered the words “I believe in God, the Father Almighty” — the first seven words of the Apostles’ Creed — scratched into a cell wall. He wrote that while in solitary confinement he “prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man.”
“There were times when I didn’t pray for one more day or one more hour, but I prayed for one more minute,” McCain said in an October 2007 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “So I have very little doubt that it was reliance on someone stronger than me that not only got me through, but got me through honorably.” Among the prisoners, McCain took the role of prison chaplain “not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.”
McCain was eventually released in 1973, nearly six years after he was taken captive, and returned to the U.S. to continue his naval career.
Marriage and a Baptist Church in Phoenix
After his 14-year marriage to Carol McCain ended, McCain married Cindy Hensleyin 1980. The couple moved to Arizona, where McCain was elected in 1982 to the U.S. Congress, first as a representative and then as a senator. In the early 1990s, the McCains and their children began attending services at North Phoenix Baptist Church.
“It wasn’t so much a rejection of the Episcopal Church,” McCain said in October 2007 of his attendance at North Phoenix Baptist Church. “I came into that church, I sat down, I got the message of redemption and love and forgiveness, and it resonated with me. I found going to that church was beneficial to me in my life.” When asked by The New YorkTimes in July 2008 how often he attends church, McCain said, “Not as often as I should,” adding that when he and his wife are in Phoenix, “We attend.”
Southern Baptists emphasize adult baptism as a symbol of faith in Christ, and McCain has said that his wife and two of their seven children have been baptized, but he has not. Responding to questions from a reporter in April 2008, McCain called his decision about baptism a “personal thing,” adding on another occasion that “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs.” But he also has said that he has been in discussion with his pastor, Dan Yeary, about being baptized, adding that he would not do it during the campaign because it might appear insincere.
Religion and Public Life
In an often-quoted Feb. 28, 2000, presidential primary campaign speech in Virginia Beach, Va. — the home of religious broadcaster and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson — McCain addressed the relationship between religion and public life. McCain, who was battling Bush, then governor of Texas, for the GOP nomination, said this the day before the Virginia primary:
My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Gov. Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.
I recognize and celebrate that our country is founded upon Judeo-Christian values, and I have pledged my life to defend America and all her values, the values that have made us the noblest experiment in history. … But political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value.
The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. … They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country.
Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.
McCain then told the POW story and of the kindness of the guard who shared his faith, emphasizing, “This is my faith, the faith that unites and never divides, the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. That is my religious faith and it is the faith I want my party to serve, and the faith I hold in my country. It is the faith that we are all equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the faith I would die to defend.”
On the day after this fiery speech, while conversing with reporters on his campaign bus, McCain was asked to elaborate on his comments regarding Robertson and Falwell. This time he criticized “the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party,” a remark for which he later apologized. McCain lost the Virginia primary to Bush, and he withdrew his national candidacy nine days later.
Since then, McCain has tried to improve his relationship with religious conservatives while also emphasizing the positive role religion can play in public life. In May 2006 he gave the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University, which was seen as a significant overture toward religious conservatives.
When asked by reporters, McCain has commented on how faith helps inform his opinions and policies. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported in April 2008 that McCain said his view that life begins at conception is based “to some degree” on his religious beliefs. “People should know the tenets of my faith and my beliefs,” McCain said. But then he added that “you want to be careful to not create an appearance — whether it’s intended or not intended — of imposing the specifics of your beliefs on others.”
In a September 2007 interview with Beliefnet, McCain said that “the [U.S.] Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, ‘I only welcome Christians.’ We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.”
While McCain was campaigning in Kentucky in April 2008, a self-described conservative, evangelical law student asked McCain how his faith would affect his decision-making as president. As McCain often does when addressing religion, he circled back to the story about his North Vietnamese prison guard and the lesson he learned from the experience. “We can’t always do it ourselves,” McCain said. “Many times from the most unexpected places — thanks to our common faith and belief — help will come.”
This religious biography was researched and written by Anne Farris, a Washington-based journalist, and Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Photo Credits: AP
On The Issues
McCain supports overturning Roe v. Wade and banning abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. During his 2000 primary campaign, McCain opposed a repeal of Roe v. Wade because it would “force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.” He has an anti-abortion voting record and during his campaign he promised, if elected, to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito who “strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States and do not legislate from the bench.” In 2003, he voted to ban partial-birth abortions, keeping in line with his anti-abortion voting record. McCain supports abstinence-based initiatives and has said that he hopes there might be “a point where [Roe v. Wade] is irrelevant … because abortion is no longer necessary.” Compare McCain and Obama
Church and State
McCain favors keeping the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; he has voted three times in favor of Senate legislation to affirm the reference. In an interview with Beliefnet in September 2007, McCain said that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation,” and added that “the lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, ‘I only welcome Christians.’ We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here, they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.” During his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain said the nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian values” but added that “political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value.”Compare McCain and Obama
McCain supports the death penalty for federal crimes. He has voted to prohibit the use of racial statistics in death penalty appeals and to ban the death penalty for minors. He also supported legislation to allow the death penalty for fatal acts of terrorism abroad and has said he would consider further expansion of capital punishment for other crimes. McCain disagreed with the June 25, 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing the execution of child rapists. Compare McCain and Obama
McCain supports vouchers that would allow students to attend public or private schools, including religious schools, arguing that “it’s time to give middle- and lower-income parents the same right wealthier families have – to send their child to the school that best meets their needs.” In February 2007, McCain spoke at an event sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a think tank known for promoting the concept of “intelligent design.” He says that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “valid” but that students should be “exposed to every point of view.”Compare McCain and Obama
McCain opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge unless it can be done in an environmentally safe manner. However, he supports lifting a ban on offshore drilling in light of recent oil price increases. During the 2008 New Hampshire primary, McCain announced that he would “clean up the planet” and “make global warming a priority.” As a U.S. senator, McCain has worked closely with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) on legislation designed to reduce greenhouse emissions through a market-based system and through the development of nuclear, solar and other alternative energy sources. He pledged to toughen automotive fuel standards and says he will use diplomacy to convince India and China to address the threats of global warming. However, he insists that U.S. energy policy must not impose “unsustainable costs on the economy.” McCain supports federal funding and preservation of national parks, arguing that Americans should take “stewardship” of their “natural heritage.” He also commends environmentally conscious evangelicals for sharing “a biblical obligation to care for our planet.”Compare McCain and Obama
McCain says the faith-based initiative is “one of the more successful parts of the Bush Administration and I would continue it.” In 2003, he voted for a bill that was a watered-down version of changes sought by President Bush to make it easier for religious groups to compete for federal grants. The bill never became law. He says groups receiving federal funding should be able to take religion into account in hiring.Compare McCain and Obama
McCain says marriage should be between a man and a woman and should be regulated by the states. He opposed a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage because “it usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed.” McCain endorsed a 2006 Arizona ballot initiative to limit marriage to be between a man and a woman and said, “I’m proud to have led an effort in my home state to change our state constitution and to protect the sanctity of marriage as between a man and woman.” He also supported the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of gay marriage and domestic partnerships. He supports the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and says that to “even reopen the issue” would be a “terrific mistake.”Compare McCain and Obama
McCain supports tax credits to encourage individuals and families to purchase health insurance and says that increased competition in the insurance industry will drive down prices. In 2005, McCain and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) proposed a national commission to study the nation’s health care system and outline proposals for addressing spiraling costs. McCain has advocated making generic drugs more available to consumers and wants to ease restrictions on imported drugs to make prescriptions more affordable. In an April 2008 speech outlining his economic policies, he called for wealthier Medicare recipients to pay higher premiums for prescription drug coverage. He advocates tort reform to eliminate excessive damage awards on medical malpractice suits. Compare McCain and Obama
McCain supports comprehensive immigration reform that addresses border security and what he calls the economy’s need for immigrant labor. He believes in reforming immigration policy so that highly skilled foreign workers are more likely to remain in the country. McCain and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) twice co-sponsored a comprehensive reform bill that would double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol. The bill, which was defeated in the summer of 2007, called for a border fence, a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants and a “guest worker” program offering temporary visas. In response to the bill’s failure, McCain said he “got the message” that for many Americans, border security takes precedence over immigration reform. Compare McCain and Obama
In 2002 McCain voted to approve the use of American force in Iraq and remains supportive of President Bush’s policies there. He has criticized management of the war but says pulling out would be a mistake that could lead to greater instability and future conflicts in the region. McCain has defended the moral justification for the war and has called it a “just war.” He has referred to terrorism as “a malevolent force that defiles an honorable religion by disputing God’s love for each and every soul on earth,” and the war in Iraq as “a fight between right and wrong, good and evil.” In a March 2008 interview with CNN, McCain said that the “surge is working” and that withdrawal from Iraq “means Al Qaeda wins.” He favors a continued presence of American forces in Iraq after the war has ended. Compare McCain and Obama
McCain has promised to make the eradication of poverty a top administration priority, asserting that “a strong and vibrant America, one in which people can move up into the middle class, put their kids through college, work hard and one day retire in dignity, is critical to not only our economic future but to the very security of our nation.” In an April 2008 statement on poverty, McCain said that “as President, I will set aside the needs of the special interests to advance the interests of the American people, especially those 12 million children who deserve every opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” McCain voted for a 1996 welfare reform bill that required more work for recipients and placed limits on the amount of time they could receive benefits. Although McCain voted for a bill to increase the federal minimum wage in February 2007, he has historically voted against minimum wage increases, arguing that they can hurt small businesses.Compare McCain and Obama
Stem Cell Research
McCain opposes embryonic stem cell research that uses cloned human embryos. In 2006 he supported a trio of U.S. Senate bills designed to increase federal funding for adult stem cell research, ban the creation of embryos for research and offer federal support for research using embryos slated for destruction by fertility clinics. In 2007, in what he described as “a very agonizing and tough decision,” he voted to allow research using human embryos left over from fertility treatments. Compare McCain and Obama